China has lit the flame for the 2022 Winter Olympics after the ceremonial torch arrived from Athens, as human rights activists called for a boycott of the tournament over Beijing’s human rights record.
Cai Qi, the Communist Party secretary of Beijing, lit a cauldron at the capital’s Olympic Tower on Wednesday to symbolise the Olympic flame’s arrival in China.
The flame had left Athens on Tuesday and travelled to Beijing in a red lantern designed in the likeness of a Han Dynasty tomb artefact, carried by torchbearers decked in white.
It will now be on display at Beijing’s Olympic Park.
In early February next year, 1,200 torchbearers will carry the flame through the three cities of Beijing, Yanqing and the district of Zhangjiakou, which are the competition venues.
Approximately 2,900 athletes, representing 85 National Olympic Committees, will compete in the Winter Games from February 4 to 20, 2022.
When the tournament kicks off, Beijing will become the first city to host both the summer and winter games.
Rights groups have called for a boycott of the Beijing Games to protest what they termed as human rights atrocities in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong. China rejects those claims and has repeatedly swatted aside talk of a boycott as “politicising sport”.
At Monday’s flame lighting ceremony in Olympia, Greece, activists grabbed the spotlight by unfurling a Tibetan flag and a banner that read “no genocide” before Greek police intervened.
A similar protest was held on Sunday at the Acropolis in Athens, where activists held up a “Free Hong Kong” sign. Two people were arrested.
In a news conference in the Greek capital on Tuesday, human rights activists urged governments and athletes worldwide to boycott the Beijing Games, saying that anything less would make the world complicit in tolerating what they called “genocide” by Beijing.
“We are in Athens to tell the international community that the Olympic Games are being handed over to a country actively committing a genocide,” Uighur-Canadian activist Zumretay Arkin told reporters.
Rights groups say more than one million Uighurs and other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang have been held in camps in recent years, their rights to worship and freedoms heavily curtailed by Chinese authorities.
The United States has described the treatment of the Uighurs as “genocide”.
After initially denying the existence of the Xinjiang camps, China later defended them as vocational training centres aimed at curbing religious “extremism”.
Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), has dismissed talk of a potential boycott, stressing the global sporting body’s political neutrality and saying it was up to governments to live up to their responsibilities.
A victim of the 1980 Moscow Games boycott, the former fencer has said such moves only punish athletes, and insists the IOC is addressing the rights issue “within our remit”.
“In these difficult times we are still living through, the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 will be an important moment to bring the world together in a spirit of peace, friendship and solidarity,” Bach said on Monday.
It will be the second Olympics to be held under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic after the Tokyo Games earlier this year.
Athletes competing in Beijing will face strict rules to contain the risk of COVID-19 cases.
Participants will stay in a “closed-loop” bubble to thwart infections, with athletes having to be either fully vaccinated or face 21 days’ quarantine.
Overseas spectators will be excluded from the Games, meaning that tickets to the events will only be sold to people living in China.
China has largely sealed its borders since the virus emerged in its central city of Wuhan towards the end of 2019, which has slowed the number of daily infections to a trickle.